The Centenary of the Golden Age

This year sees the centenary of the publication of the book that, by common consent, launched the “Golden Age” of detective fiction. This was Trent’s Last Case, and the author was a Daily Telegraph journalist called Edmund Clerihew Bentley.

Bentley, an old school friend of G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown, was an admirer of Sherlock Holmes, but felt that too often detective stories of the Edwardian era were unrealistic. In 1910, as he said in his memoirs, “it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to write a detective story of a new sort…it should be possible, I thought, to write a detective story in which the detective was recognisable as a human being’.

How should he go about this? One particular idea appealed to him: “the notion of making the hero’s hard-won and obviously correct solution of the mystery turn out to be completely wrong. Why not show up the infallibility of the Holmesian method?” So he created Philip Trent, a painter and occasional amateur detective, who not only falls in love with a murdered financier’s widow, who is a possible suspect, but comes up with an explanation for the crime which, in a splendid twist, falls apart.

Bentley was an elegant writer, and his novel was first bought by an American publisher (in the US, it was called The Woman in Black), and then by his friend John Buchan, who at that time worked in publishing. It became both an immediate success, was widely translated, and filmed three times.

As Bentley ruefully said, “it does not seem to have been generally realised that Trent’s Last Case is not so much a detective story as an exposure of detective stories”. By and large, the public took it at face value, and liked what they read. Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown had been seen at their best in short stories, but Trent’s Last Case showed the potential of the full-length detective novel with a clever final twist and was much admired by the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

After the First World War, a new generation of writers began to exploit that potential. Christie’s debut, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, appeared in 1920, as did Freeman Wills Crofts’ first book, The Cask. Christie’s book is now widely regarded as a classic of the genre, but initially it was outsold by Crofts’ book, in which the police painstakingly investigate the discovery of a woman’s remains in a cask that has been unloaded at St Katherine’s Dock.

Other writers of distinction soon got in on the act. A.A. Milne enjoyed great success with The Red House Mystery, although he soon deserted detective fiction for Winnie-the-Pooh. Sayers introduced Lord Peter Wimsey in Whose Body? and Anthony Berkeley came on the scene in 1925, with The Layton Court Mystery. Five years later, Berkeley, with Sayers’ strong support, formed the Detection Club, a social group which strove for high literary standards in detective fiction.

Strangely, the man who kick-started the Golden Age contributed little more to it, although he did become President of the Detection Club after Chesterton’s death. Bentley wrote a number of stories featuring Philip Trent, collected in Trent Intervenes, but the only other Trent novel was a book that he co-authored with H. Warner Allen, Trent’s Own Case. Published amid great fanfare in 1936, it was something of a disappointment. By now, the Golden Age was at its height, and Christie, Sayers and Berkeley were taking the detective story in fresh directions, writing classic novels such as Murder on the Orient Express, The Nine Tailors and Malice Aforethought.

Even the Daily Telegraph did not, as far as I could see, celebrate the centenary of Trent’s first appearance last March. This is rather sad, not only because Bentley’s book was a landmark in the development of popular fiction but because it is still a light and entertaining read today. And what Bentley has to say about selfish financiers certainly has resonance for modern readers!